After claiming two of the big prizes at this year’s Golden Globes (Best Motion Picture—Drama and Best Director—Motion Picture), James Cameron’s Avatar is on a fast track to Oscar glory, hoping to prove it has more to offer than just fancy special effects and groundbreaking digital technology.
Heavy-handed and lacking in originality—almost every review compares it to Dances with Wolves in space—the political overtones of the well-worn “outsider goes native in order to protect the aboriginals and regain his own spiritual equanimity” storyline have garnered less debate than its palatable pantheism and environmental spirituality (one clear exception is the thorough-going post-colonial critique of this and every other movie like it on io9).
Ross Douthat of the New York Times sees the themes of cosmic interconnectedness as another example of the decline of American, if not human, religious consciousness:
Today there are other forces that expand pantheism’s American appeal. We pine for what we’ve left behind, and divinizing the natural world is an obvious way to express unease about our hyper-technological society. The threat of global warming, meanwhile, has lent the cult of Nature qualities that every successful religion needs — a crusading spirit, a rigorous set of ‘thou shalt nots,” and a piping-hot apocalypse.
At the same time, pantheism opens a path to numinous experience for people uncomfortable with the literal-mindedness of the monotheistic religions — with their miracle-working deities and holy books, their virgin births and resurrected bodies. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski noted, attributing divinity to the natural world helps “bring God closer to human experience,” while “depriving him of recognizable personal traits.” For anyone who pines for transcendence but recoils at the idea of a demanding Almighty who interferes in human affairs, this is an ideal combination.
Pantheism offers a different sort of solution: a downward exit, an abandonment of our tragic self-consciousness, a re-merger with the natural world our ancestors half-escaped millennia ago.
John Podhoretz at The Weekly Standard is less concerned with charting religious consciousness, but agrees that the easy mix of anti-corporation, anti-military values, and ecological spirituality are proof of just how uncontroversial quasi-New Age, religio-political pastiche is:
The thing is, one would be giving James Cameron too much credit to take Avatar-with its mindless worship of a nature-loving tribe and the tribe’s adorable pagan rituals, its hatred of the military and American institutions, and the notion that to be human is just way uncool-at all seriously as a political document. It’s more interesting as an example of how deeply rooted these standard-issue counterculture clichés in Hollywood have become by now. Cameron has simply used these familiar bromides as shorthand to give his special-effects spectacular some resonance. He wrote it this way not to be controversial, but quite the opposite: He was making something he thought would be most pleasing to the greatest number of people.
Jonah Goldberg, writing in the LA Times, sees the non-controversy of Avatar’s pantheistic religious ecology as proof for Nicolas Wade’s thesis in The Faith Instinct:
Many environmentalists are quite open about their desire to turn their cause into a religious imperative akin to the plight of the Na’Vi, hence Al Gore’s uncontroversial insistence that global warming is a “spiritual challenge to all of humanity.” The symbolism and rhetoric behind much of Barack Obama’s campaign was overtly religious at times, as when he proclaimed that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for”— line that could have come straight out of the mouths of Cameron’s Na’Vi.
What I find fascinating, and infuriating, is how the culture war debate is routinely described by antagonists on both sides as a conflict between the religious and the un-religious. The faith instinct manifests itself across the ideological spectrum, even if it masquerades as something else.
Yet as Jeffrey Weiss points out at Politics Daily, this isn’t your mother’s pantheism. The Na’Vi are physically and biologically connected to all things – indeed, the entire eco-system of Pandora is wired like an intricate motherboard. The Na’Vi plug-in to this system using the physical nerve endings that run from their brains through their hair. The physicality of this interconnectedness, for Weiss, means we are dealing with biology and physics, not religion and theology:
It turns out that the Na’vi deity that they call Eywa is real as rocks. Trees, plants and many animals have literal connections to each other, forming synapses in a giant world-mind. A mind that manifests itself at a key point of the plot in a way that leaves no ambiguity about whether “she” is real or not.
Academics will argue about exactly how you define “religion.” But one element is common to every definition I’ve ever seen: faith. A religion requires its adherents to have faith in some aspect of the transcendent that cannot be proven using the material stuff of the ordinary world.
Caleb Crain at N+1 is equally disturbed by the physicality of Na’Vi spirituality, but sees the sleight-of-hand not so much in the swap of theology for biology, but in the overt duplicity of a film that criticizes the excesses of technology by creating a technological spirituality:
[O]n Cameron’s Pandora, the animals cavort with one another much like the peripherals on his desk, plugging and playing at will, and the afterlife is more or less equivalent to cloud computing. Once you upload yourself, you don’t really have to worry about crashing your hard drive. Your soul is safe in Google Docs. In a climactic scene, rings of natives chant and sway, ecstatically connected, while the protagonists in the center plug into the glowing tree, and I muttered silently to myself, The church of Facebook. You too can be reborn there.